There may be a few days left on the calendar, but for all intents and purposes 2015 has come to a close, and now it’s time to reflect on what Hollywood served up over the past 12 months. I managed to squeeze in 132 films this year – more than any other year in my life – so narrowing down this list to my favorites was no easy task.
It should be noted that this list is a reflection of my own personal opinion of the films I’ve viewed this year – chances are, my picks will be very different than what some of our other staff members or readers might have chosen. Feel free to weigh in using the Comments section at the bottom of this post.
#13. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Painstakingly crafted with love and respect, and imbued with countless little details that longtime fans will be able to analyze and appreciate, the long-awaited seventh installment is funny, exciting, tragic, and entertaining from start to finish. It may not be the best Star Wars film, but it’s a damn good one.
#12. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
This Sundance darling is a love letter to teenage creativity, and a beautifully touching tale of friendship. It deftly avoids the tropes and clichés of most coming-of-age stories, thanks to a whip-smart screenplay by Jesse Andrews (adapted from his own original novel) and careful direction by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, and is a celebration of creativity, youthful ambition, and most importantly, of life itself.
#11. The Danish Girl
One year after his Oscar-winning portrayal of physicist Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, Eddie Redmayne turns in the best performance of his career as Danish artist Einar Wegener, who became one of the first successful recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Alicia Vikander is equally brilliant as Einar’s spouse, who steadfastly supports Einar’s journey to become Lili Elbe.
#10. Straight Outta Compton
The rare case where a film adheres to the tried-and-true formula of other music biopics, but infuses familiar tropes with a frenetic energy that makes everything feel fresh and exciting. The characters and performances are so engrossing that you’ll barely notice the lengthy running time, and the journey is so captivating that you won’t care that you already know the outcome.
#9. The Martian
It was a great year for sci-fi, and Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel was another stellar entry into the genre – not to mention a return to form for the director himself. Matt Damon’s endearing “everyman” performance and the film’s frequent reliance on real-world scientific principles make for an interesting combination that can appeal to just about anyone.
#8. Inside Out
Pixar has always been able to pluck at our heartstrings, but Inside Out takes the idea of “playing with our emotions” quite literally. It’s a remarkably imaginative concept that tackles some surprisingly mature themes, providing plenty of entertainment for younger audiences, while simultaneously giving adult viewers a thought-provoking and contemplative experience.
#7. Ex Machina
A riveting sci-fi mystery about an eccentric genius (Oscar Isaac), a naive programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) and a sophisticated A.I. (Alicia Vikander), Alex Garland’s directorial debut is both a character-driven piece about the nature of consciousness and humanity, and a tightly wound thriller about manipulation and deception.
#6. Mad Max: Fury Road
Trapped in a state of perpetual forward motion and absolutely relentless in its pacing, George Miller’s celebrated return to the franchise he created is a jaw-dropping, eye-popping, mind-blowing experience that sets a new standard for what audiences should expect from action filmmaking.
#5. The Hateful Eight
Quentin Tarantino’s hilariously mean-spirited Western is a return to the more focused and cohesive storytelling that launched his Hollywood career. Much like his debut feature, the director’s eighth film is a dialogue-driven piece set mostly in a single location, with an incredibly talented cast operating at the pinnacle of their abilities. Wonderfully profane and absurdly violent, it’s Tarantino’s best effort in years.
#4. Beasts of No Nation
After establishing themselves as one of the premiere destinations for great television, Netflix expanded into the realm of feature films this year by allying themselves with one of television’s bold new voices. True Detective director Cary Fukunaga adapts the disturbing saga of a child soldier (Abraham Attah) in an unnamed African country, forced to fight for a charismatic commander (Idris Elba). The atrocities of war are on full display here, as are the lasting effects that linger when the conflict is over.
This superbly-acted ensemble piece will be at the top of many “best of” lists for 2015, and with good reason. The engrossing account of a crack team of journalists who uncovered an extraordinarlly far-reaching scandal and cover-up is captivating – and at times, infuriating. The subject matter could easily have felt salacious in the hands of a less qualified director, but Tom McCarthy paints an accurate picture while leaving out the sordid details.
Denis Villeneuve’s gripping tale of an idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who joins a covert CIA operation to battle the Mexican cartels is an expertly crafted thriller. The film brazenly flies in the face of expectation, remaining several steps ahead of the audience at all times, and the border crossing scene during the second act is a masterpiece of suspense.
Never have I seen a film that elicited such an intense emotional response, and affected me on such a deeply personal level. The harrowing story of Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as they attempt to free themselves from captivity is difficult enough to endure, but equally heartbreaking is their assimilation into the outside world. A truly remarkable piece of cinema, and easily the best film of 2015.